Apple may have nixed the Macworld Expo in favor of its own proprietary PR model, but if the internet’s reaction to the iPad—Apple’s upcoming venture into tablet computing—is any indication, Apple’s love of January unveilings remains intact.
Whether your Very Important Apple Belief System puts you in the “oversized iPod Touch” or the “second coming of the tablet form factor” camp, one thing is for certain: The iPad makes it clear that the Apple wants a piece of the e-book pie. Through the iBookstore, the iPad will go toe-to-toe with e-book retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and just as importantly, with their own respective e-book devices).
Nestled between WiFi specs and price points was perhaps a more interesting announcement. Formalizing a rumored collaboration, Apple announced an upcoming New York Times iPad app aimed at retaining the feel of reading a newspaper while delivering NYT content to a generation that thinks itself evolved beyond primitive broadsheet.
Expect other outlets to follow suit, with the Times app becoming a prototype for what’s to come. It’s common knowledge that print news is hemorrhaging ad revenue and subscribers, but that’s not for lack of the public’s interest in reading the news. The interest remains, but the public, pampered as it is, wants to consume news without all that messy paper getting in the way.
The industry is looking for a savior, someone who can beat back the demons that blog up its content and craigslist away its livelihood. Apple seems to think it has the magic touch, but Apple’s own model, applied to news content, suffers from a few crucial points that could threaten to hamstring its attempts.
In the days before podcasts and DVRs, broadcast news was largely relegated to its traditional timeframes, with the exception of special reports and five-second teasers thrown in between programs. Print had permanence on its side; while broadcast news had the advantage of being able to interrupt scheduled programs when necessary, the chronological quarantines typically native to the format gave print journalism a vital edge. Mom and Dad could enjoy a newspaper over their morning coffee, but they just as easily could wait until lunchtime.
Both the newspaper and its broadcast counterparts were seen by consumers as parallel transmission vectors so ubiquitously necessary that the very scale of their hugeness almost made them invisible. The fundamental differences between the formats gave everyone just enough breathing room to reach an unsteady equilibrium, and their respective trenches were so deeply dug that nobody even considered change. Worrying about how to get the news out was about as pressing a concern as worrying about running out of hair gel or smoking during pregnancy. It was a staple of American culture, like wearing a suit to a lower-middle-class job.
What the news media lacks is a distribution method on which Apple can piggyback. Apple’s success in music is partially due to the samples of its purchasable product, which are freely available from a wide variety of other sources, enabling users to pick and choose on iTunes with an educated perspective. Print media simply has no equivalent, and that lack could very well be deadly. Remixes notwithstanding, the “Poker Face” you hear on the radio is the “Poker Face” you’ll buy from iTunes, but today’s headlines will not be the same tomorrow (and in the eyes of a generation that gets along fine without newspapers, not worth buying).
So how does one sell to these crazy kids? A subscription model flies in the face of the modern user’s expectations. Modularity of content, a keystone upon which the House of Jobs is built, doesn’t exactly mesh with subscriptions, which demand an act of faith more powerful than the average iPad demographic member can muster.
But what about pay-per-article? It’s what users expect, but without some way to give them so much of the content that they don’t bother paying for the rest, how would a la carte news work? Would previews even be offered, and would the inverted pyramid style common to newswriting have to evolve to compensate? Would an outlet’s reputation be expected to keep its presence afloat? Would sliding price points geared toward moving more articles be put in place? Would a user ratings system be used to raise customer awareness of the best content?
And is there another, more feasible way to move content that I’m not considering? If you ask me, the first person who can answer “yes” to this on a national scale, Apple or not, will be the one that wins.
Don’t get me wrong—print needs all the help it can get right now. Mom and dad have retired, the kids get their news from The Daily Show clips on Hulu, and paper will soon be considered either archaic or contraband. If anyone can convince the cultural zeitgeist, the tech world, and the news media to commingle, it’s Apple, but unless the industry manages to wrap its head around the expectations of the post-print user in a more fundamental way than can be achieved by simply delivering the same content through the App Store, the iPad’s contribution to the news media will be similar to the “I Am T-Pain” app’s contribution to digital music: shallow, featureless, and ultimately forgettable.